Bethesda Magazine | July-August 2017

A Wordless Way By Kathleen Cho

High School Essay Second Place Winner, Poolesville High School

My grandfather was full of amazing stories. On days I visited his house to help make dumplings, he would tell me the story behind his name, Chong. Or the story of how he and his siblings escaped during the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean army when he was just a teenager. Or the story of how he became the manager of his local Kmart after working hard for many years once he immigrated to America. He would artfully craft his sentences in resonant Hangul, with the dialect of a man who comes from Seoul, South Korea. Each story was a piece of his life, and I would sit and listen to his emotive tongue as I silently wrapped each dumpling one by one.

After having heard so many of my grandfather’s stories, I too wanted to share with him little pieces of my own life. But I couldn’t. Although I was able to decently comprehend my grandfather’s stories, I was not able to speak above a Korean 4-year-old’s level of vocabulary. So when I wanted to share with him the story of how I raised my very first pet, a caterpillar, or the story of how I wore my shirt backwards on my very first date, I couldn’t.

Korean was not a medium I could use to communicate with my grandfather. But once music became a part of my life, it was able to become that medium.

My grandfather wasn’t a musician, but he loved music. One night, I noticed an infinite collection of record albums laying in his basement. I found albums ranging from The Beatles to Mendelssohn, The Carpenters to Bach. My grandfather understood music—many kinds of it. And so instead of Korean, I decided to tell him my stories through making music.

Sonatas were stories of my high school experiences, the exposition representing my initial recurring excitement and the development conveying the emotional ups and downs that come with simply being a teenage girl—something rather new to my grandfather. Caprichos were how I expressed to him elements of my true quirkiness, the whimsical flare revealing my oddities. And one particular elegy became my way of mourning with him the death of his younger brother, my granduncle, the melancholic melody crying out tears that we were both too heavy-hearted to physically produce.    

All the languages existing in our world serve the beautiful purpose of letting two people communicate with one another. But the true beauty in music, a very special type of language, is its ability to overcome the cultural and social differences that may hinder people who speak two different languages, like me and my grandfather, from communicating with each other. In a world full of barriers that prevent us from fully understanding one another, I believe that music can be the medium through which we can convey the important messages that cannot always be expressed in words. Because all you have to do is listen and you can understand.